Picture the scene: I’d spent the day teaching 300 teenagers in a secondary school in Surrey and now, here I was, in the very same hall which was the scene of my day’s graft, 4 hours later, ready to face their parents.
Something about parents makes me nervous. I’m not entirely sure why. Perhaps it’s because my Mum has always been a ‘best friend’ type figure in my life, way cooler and funnier than I could ever hope to be in my wildest imagination, and so at odds with other Mums of my generation who seemed to spend their lives either at home baking pies, or chasing corporate, high flying business careers, but were equally terrifying when uttering the word “grounded”.
Or perhaps it’s because my Gossip School class relies so heavily on humour (as Body Gossip Ruth says “it’s basically an hour of stand-up comedy which suddenly becomes incredibly profound and heart wrenching, out of nowhere”), and, when it comes to their children’s education, it’s been my experience that parents have a bit of a sense of humour bypass situation going on.
I feel at ease in a classroom full of teenagers, perhaps because I have mental age of about 16 myself (interestingly, many of the teachers I have spoken to express the same sentiment) and suddenly, when faced with “proper grown-ups”, I was a little terrified.
In retrospect, I shouldn’t have worried. They laughed in all the right places. They were engaged, intelligent and just the right amount of cheeky. They asked a gazillion questions. By the end, they were suitably galvanized in all issues body image related. In essence, they were my perfect class. I should teach parents more often.
At the end of the session, a long line of, mainly mothers, queued along one side of the hall for a private chat. And that’s when it truly hit me – For every child battling body image and self-esteem issues, there’s at least one parent in utter anguish, fruitlessly hand wringing and wondering where the hell the guidebook is on THIS thorny issue (incidentally, they could do worse than to read Lynn Crilly’s ‘Hope with Eating Disorders’, out in April).
They were also, without exception, labouring under a, mainly media perpetuated misconception – Namely that all eating and body related issues are the result of a dark and unspeakable trauma. That because their children were consumed by body dissatisfaction, or engaging in unhealthy food behaviours, they MUST be being bullied or have suffered abuse in their formative years. And of course this belief magnified the guilt they were feeling for ‘missing’ whatever the cause of their child’s issue happened to be.
Now, it would be remiss of me to suggest that, in a lot of cases, bullying and abuse doesn’t result in eating disorders. They undoubtedly, empirically, unarguably do. But the same causal link doesn’t work in reverse. Sometimes people abuse their mind and body because they’ve read too much Heat Magazine, or want to emulate the airbrushed images they see on the internet, or they feel inadequate compared to their mates.
And those people will probably not weigh five stone. They won’t qualify for immediate, urgent psychological and physical help from their GP. They might, if they are lucky, have been put on an 18 month waiting list for ‘counselling’. However, they’re likely to have been so inundated with ‘real life’ eating disorder stories featuring skeletal teenage girls standing in their bra and pants that they’ll feel they somehow ‘don’t qualify’ to ask for the help they need to battle their own demons.
Susie Orbach said in her address to Parliament last month that behaviours which have been completely normalised now – skipping meals, cutting our food groups, occasional purging, compulsive exercising, consumption of diet pills etc – would have been classified as a serious eating disorder when she first began practising as a Psychiatrist, back in the 1970s.
These behaviours aren’t seen as particularly serious, now, and are even advocated in certain glossy magazines as ‘quick fix, usually pre-holiday “fit into your bikini/skinny jeans” weight loss tools. Yet these behaviours can still lead to osteoporosis, depression, heart palpitations, inability to concentrate, suicidal tendencies, impairment of academic performance, bad circulation, hair loss, lack of menstruation, social isolation and general misery – Not things we’d ever wish upon Britain’s teenagers.
So, this Eating Disorder Awareness Week – Which starts tomorrow in the UK (20th February), Body Gossip are challenging the public to speak up about the eating disorders you can’t see, and wouldn’t necessarily expect.
There are a host of bulimics, compulsive eaters, compulsive exercisers, diet pill addicts, anorexics who ‘don’t look too thin’ and borderline body dysmorphics out there who deserve a voice. These people encompass a broad racial and social spectrum, come in all shapes a sizes and both genders. You know them. You might BE them.
Acknowledging these people will help us nip eating disorders in the proverbial bud, to take the relatively time and cost effective measures to get Britain back to physical and psychological health and let its inhabitants enjoy their lives.
Tweet your thoughts to @_BodyGossip or @BodyGossipTash and let’s give a voice to the eating disorders you cannot see.